Nebraska Thoroughbred Hall of Fame member David C. Anderson has been talking about retirement for years.

The longtime trainer and breeder was looking forward to cutting back on his farm near Ashland, enjoying the grandkids and doing all the things retired people do. 

But when Nebraska voters legalized casino gambling in 2020, his outlook changed in a hurry. 

“All of a sudden my phone started ringing,” Anderson recalled in 2021, “and I have a hard time saying no.”

After falling to an unsustainable low, the number of Nebraska-bred foals has rebounded in the years following voter approval of casinos at licensed race tracks. That is despite what some in the breeding and racing industries see as a slow start to state-sanctioned gambling.

The number of registered foals in the state had plummeted from 189 in 2005 to 33 in 2019. In 2021, the year after voters overwhelmingly OK’d casino gambling, that number grew to 96.

Anderson and some of his clients immediately went to Kentucky and bought a few mares that were with foal. 

“We went down there and bought six or eight,” said Anderson, vice president of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and a member of the Nebraska Thoroughbred Breeders Association. “They’re 3-year-olds now and we have a few of them out here (at Fonner Park).”

The number of mares bred, which some view as a better indicator, also is trending up – from 81 in 2020 to 130 in 2023.

But a breeding boom doesn’t immediately translate to racing results. That’s because foals aren’t ready to hit the racetrack until they’re 3 years old. In 2002, there were 448 Nebraska-bred starters who went to the post a total of 3,231 times. By 2022 that had shrunk to 98 Nebraska-bred starters with just 490 starts.

“I don’t know if it’s a true indicator of the direction we’re going or not,” said Zach Mader, president of the Nebraska Thoroughbred Breeders Association. “I know there was a lot more excitement in 2021 than there is now. I think when we see the finished product (permanent casinos built), we should see larger purses and an influx of dollars into the racing business.”

The measures approved by voters in 2020 were years in the making. The coalition that successfully got the measures on the ballot argued, among other things, that they would provide a badly needed lifeline to Nebraska’s horsemen. 

“You’re going to start seeing a lot of people raising thoroughbred horses again,” said Lynne McNally with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association in a 2020 video promoting the measures. “That part of the economy has decreased significantly … if this passes you will see that resurgence again.”

The changes  allowed for the construction of casinos at licensed horse tracks. Nebraska currently has six of those tracks. 

But a combination of factors, including legislative and regulatory delays, have slowed casino construction. No casinos have opened yet, though temporary ones are operating in Lincoln, Omaha, Grand Island and Columbus. Those generated $17.8 million in tax revenue in 2023.

“It’s kind of backed off the last couple of years because people in their minds don’t see it moving forward quickly enough, so they’ve taken their mares elsewhere to foal out,” Anderson said. 

State law requires tracks to run at least one race for Nebraska-bred horses each live racing day. That’s been a problem the last few years when the numbers were so low.

Anderson said the success of the breeding industry in the state has a direct effect on the success of horse racing.

“Any state that has racing that’s successful has a tremendously good breeding program,” he said. “They offer great breeders’ rewards and incentives to run in open races and different things like that. I want our breeders’ board to get the program off and running to this point.”

That’s what Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak is looking for as well.

“I'd rather raise a Nebraska-bred,” he said. “I don’t care if I have three Nebraska-bred races a day. We need a strong industry in Nebraska for the thoroughbred racing and having a strong breeding program is the solution.”

Fonner Park was able to increase its purses by 20% this year. That’s a nice jump, but it wasn’t enough to attract more trainers for its 31-day meet that opened on Feb. 17, or enough to compete with purses offered at Prairie Meadows in Altoona, Iowa, or at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota.

“We wished the whole process would have happened a little more rapidly in terms of casinos and money generated,” Anderson said. “I anticipated by 2024 our purses would be substantially more than they are, but it is what it is. I think moving forward our breed program will certainly grow.”

That’s what Kotulak wants to see too. He said it will take everyone working together – the breeders’ association, the HBPA and maybe the Legislature – to get it all to work.

“We’re going to have more people raising horses which means we’ll need feed for those horses, more jobs, and then of course the money that comes from people involved with breeding and racing thoroughbreds,” Kotulak said.

Judy Pryor, who has a horse farm near Omaha, is one of those breeders who would benefit from increased purses in the state. 

She purchased a pair of stallions in 2021 – Court Vision and Giant Expectations – for her 400-acre Pryor Ranch. But Pryor isn’t doing it for the money.

“The amount of money that you make, no matter if the purses are big or small, doesn’t compare to the joy with the chores and the hands-on at home,” she said. “When you bred them and raised them from beginning to end … there’s no price you can put on that.”

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